From the short story collection “Mixed Company”
Freshman year, Coach Sasser assigned Junebug, Isabel, and me to the junior varsity basketball team, where we wore the ill-fitting brown polyester uniforms of our high school, the Thomas Jefferson Spartans. On J.V. we were golden, thundering up and down the court with little form but much life. We threw up impossible shots and swatted away the attempts of pathetically shorter people and won games with scores like twenty to twelve. We hadn’t met a play we didn’t forget. We didn’t know a foul we wouldn’t commit. We couldn’t learn a scam we wouldn’t run. Isabel took off down the court before the other team even thought about shooting a basket, and when they bricked it, I’d grab the rebound and launch the ball. Junebug waited across the court, jumped to meet my pass, and had two or three chances to sink her lay-up before the other team, panting, caught up with her. Cherry picking, our rivals said, but we didn’t care. A basket was a basket.
I was tall enough to be of use, quick enough to be in the right place at some of the right times, and accurate as any girl who played H.O.R.S.E. with her father on Saturday afternoons. Isabel was a steady point guard, a methodical dribbler, a careful passer, and a reluctant shooter.
Junebug had sauntered into the gym as a freshman shooting guard with a rep built in middle school. In a public district without organized ball until high school, this was not easy to do. She was loud, always letting out sounds with no meaning that she couldn’t keep inside her. She passed with her mouth open, shot with her tongue out. She was a tiny, tawny lion, with baggy shorts down to her knees, striped socks raised to meet them, and an attitude that radiated from her. We were all taken in by her at first. She passed without looking and twisted, improbably, in mid-air. Junebug’s moves were jazz made visible, until the ball, inevitably, clanged off the rim with a discrepant chord, or one of her beautiful but wild passes sent the ball flying to an unoccupied sideline.
“Can you make a lay-up?” Coach Sasser asked Junebug one day early in freshman season, standing on the sideline resplendent in her XL maroon tracksuit and mushroom-cap-shaped press-and-curl bob, her inch-long lacquered nails clutching the golden whistle that hung from a chain around her neck.
Junebug stood near the basket and bricked one stationary lay-up after another. We had to run a suicide for every one she missed. The next day we were sore. Before kids are big enough, they don’t have enough force to make a basket anyway. Junebug had just looked good while trying, and that was enough for word to spread.
At the beginning of our sophomore season, Junebug, Isabel, and I made the varsity basketball team, and we thought we would be playing side by side, every once in a while at least, when the starters needed rest.
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Instead, we sat the bench. That was how we said it—we didn’t sit on the bench, we sat the bench, as if it were a part of us, as if we had mutated to meld with it. We hadn’t expected it to be that way. Our J.V. record was immaculate, though the games themselves were a stain. We were happy enough at first, just to wear matching uniforms that didn’t encase us like sausages the way the J.V. ones had, happy enough to run out with the team and see our names in the program, even if they were misspelled. But as the first game passed without us touching the court, then another, and another, we wanted to play with an intensity that unmoored us.
Not that we deserved to play at first. Charmaine Grand, the senior starting point guard, grew up playing street ball with the boys and now she dazzled with her skills. If we had been put in, bringing our rowdy ostentation, we would have looked like fools next to Charmaine’s quiet grace. She was slim and muscled and her hands could do clever things with the ball that we’d have to watch in slow motion to fully understand. When we ran wind sprints, Junebug was the only one who came anywhere close to matching Charmaine’s speed.
We slogged through school days, listless with deprivation from playing time, turning on our energy only for the afternoon practices that could earn us a chance to play. Classes were a haze of daydreams in which I was invited on a court that opened up before me, a streak of sunlight cutting the way to the basket. If Coach Sasser put me in on varsity, who’s to say I wouldn’t just dunk that ball?
Junebug, my chemistry lab partner, interrupted my reverie to talk about people who actually played. “Nico, did you see that pass Charmaine made in the scrimmage yesterday? She was looking one way and the ball went the other.” Junebug held her goggles away from her face when she wasn’t mixing chemicals so she wouldn’t get the cheek dents that would brand her as a science nerd as we emerged from the lab.
“What about that blind backdoor lay-up she made?” I adjusted the titration apparatus. “And her hair is so—” I sought the word, “shiny.”
Junebug shook her head once, sharp. I knew what this meant: please stop talking so we can still be friends.
I thought about Charmaine’s hair: glossy chin-length black curls. Many of my teammates struggled to settle on a hairdo that would endure all the sweating we did. Braids were a practical option but weren’t in fashion at the moment. Junebug wore her hair in a cute high ponytail that curved precisely under like a fat apostrophe. I knew she protected it at night with a bandana because once she’d shown up for an early Saturday practice with this granny kerchief still on. My own lank hair, the color of a brown mouse pelt, looked equally bad sweaty or dry. I had a cowlick in front that parted my bangs down the middle, no matter how I tried to join them. Charmaine’s hair wasn’t just shiny. It glistened. It was a Jheri Curl, powered by activator. As a white girl, I struggled with Black hair math, but I finally put it together that this far into the ’90s, this style wasn’t allowed. None of my classmates had dripped Jheri Curl juice on my math papers, dotting them with translucent spots, since middle school. So that’s why Junebug hushed me. I’d discovered our hero’s Achilles’ heel. Charmaine had found a hairdo that worked and held onto it for too long.
“What the hell is everyone doing without their goggles on?” our chemistry teacher shouted. Junebug and I were the only ones with our goggles pushed up just then, but to him it looked like mutiny. We readjusted their goggles and scuttled back to our station.
“Any dents?” she asked, that day as always, before we parted.
“No dents,” I said.
That afternoon when the principal brought in a Thomas Jefferson impersonator for an all-school assembly it caused a near riot. Although the speaker’s attire was the subject of plenty of cracks, most people listened while the wig-wearing man in breeches and hose clomped around the stage in his colonial shoes, delivering a boring speech about Monticello and founding the country. At the end students were allowed to question the great man, and Junebug shot her hand up to ask the first one, “Why did you own slaves?”
As Jefferson began to answer, kids rose from their seats and heckled, hooting and throwing balled-up paper. The principal took the mic to quiet us down, made us listen to the impersonator’s answer, and then asked for another question. Jefferson called on a junior in the front, ignoring the frantic way the principal was shaking his head. “How many times did you have sex with your slaves?” the kid boomed.
The crowd roared, everyone leaping out of their seats. The principal should have known better. The only assemblies where everybody paid respectful attention were those that featured the members of Brother to Brother performing a dazzling, coordinated step routine in their matching buff Timberlands, their unified stomps echoing off the gym floor. The principal ushered the impersonator out to the wings of the stage under a hail of thrown paper.
At practice, we tried to make ourselves feel a part of the team, participating in the sideline gossip sessions while waiting our turn in drills.
“What’s our non-district game this year?” Junebug asked Reggie, a six-foot tall junior.
“Pinnacle Christian,” Reggie said. She paused, put her hands on her hips, assessed the progress of the drill. “I heard they’re racist,” she added.
“Who said?” I asked.
“My cousin—she plays for ‘Bello.” Reggie glanced at Sasser to make sure she wouldn’t launch a basketball at our faces for looking the wrong way. “She said the Pinnacle team used some ugly words when they played them.”
“Who doesn’t use ugly words when they play Montbello?” I said, but no one laughed.
“Mountain girls never see anything but white people their whole lives,” Junebug said.
“Something like that,” Reggie said, shrugging her shoulders.
Junebug puffed herself up, spanked the basketball she held in her hands, and shouted, too loud, “We’ve got to beat that ass.”
Coach Sasser blew the whistle. “Since you can’t pay attention, you might as well get on the line.” I wondered if she’d promoted us to varsity just to prompt extra running drills to punish our mistakes.
We swore under our breath as we approached the baseline that was our sprinting starting mark. During the rest of the practice, the story passed in fragments, and was embellished, falsified. Reggie said the Pinnacle coach told the Montbello coach “you people can use the guest locker room.” Althea, the center, a solid brick of a girl who protected her recently-aligned teeth with a terrifying red mouthpiece, said she’d heard a Pinnacle fan assumed one of the girl’s mothers was a janitor and pointed out a spilled soda to her. One Pinnacle player had told a Montbello player, “Your hair smells like baby puke.” At the end of it, I didn’t know whose cousin was the subject of this abuse. Maybe she was a cousin to all of us, after that, even the four of us known on the team as “the white girls”: me, a dishwater blonde Warrant-aficionado named Joli, Isabel, whose mom was from El Salvador, and Laura, a junior guard who was adopted from Vietnam.
Charmaine took no part in gossip. While we talked, our voices and gestures becoming animated with anger, she stood three paces off, working on her dribbling. She directed the ball between her legs and around in a fluid motion, keeping her eyes on the back wall.
It was the same way every season, when the same old rumors washed down from the mountains to the city. In Denver, we played each of the other nine teams in the district twice and one or two out-of-conference games each season. We played one across-state team, and always someone on our team had a cousin or a niece or an aunt on another who had played them already and brought away a dark report. It motivated us to cast our opponent in that evil light and make whatever we accomplished on the court into a crusade against small-town backwardness.
That was when the games became more about honor than basketball, and life on the bench grew more agitated. The first big game that season was at hoops powerhouse Montbello, a tract in northernmost Denver where the mountain view is blocked by industry and HUD houses spring up in birthday cake colors: lavender trimmed with violet, baby blue with Pepto Bismol pink, bubblegum with magenta. Montbello was an enemy that we understood, a high school like ours where it was possible to graduate without being taught how to read, filled with kids who were the reasons other parents sent their own to private school.
We hated the girls on the Montbello team like sisters, and our violence towards each other was of the hair-pulling and name-calling variety. “Montghetto,” we called them, and wondered what they called us. But we never feared them, never feared what we felt towards them. We just wanted to meet them on the court and win.
The game was fierce and sloppy. The teams played with a degree of intensity usually reserved for when the stands were at least a quarter full. But as usual, the game took place before the company of an odd assortment of loafing janitors and the strange old man who came to every afternoon girls’ game wearing the same pair of gray pants and watched us while he did the crossword puzzle and drank canned tea.
Junebug, Isabel, and I fought to position ourselves on either side of Coach Sasser, hoping that her eyes would stray on us and that would give her an idea. We could smell her gardenia perfume, and out of the corner of our eyes catch a glimpse of the silk scarf that was always at her throat during games, complementing her pantsuit, the scarf of a color that a woman couldn’t wear until she was of a certain age: mustard, taupe, tangerine. We monitored our periphery for any signs of the scarf’s movement that might indicate she was about to make a change. We sat on the edges of our seats, leaned our elbows on our knees, and clasped our hands together in an attitude of prayer. The game was close, the lead see-sawing back and forth. When Coach met our eyes, she looked away quickly, uncomfortable with our hunger. By fourth quarter, we had been pushed out to the edges, as Coach Sasser squeezed replacements next to her for quick instructions. On the bench, we parched ourselves with longing, drinking dry the water bottles that were meant for those who played.
Our team was up by eight with two minutes left on the clock. The Montbello fans tried to rattle us, starting up a chant:
He-ey, number 3-4,
your greasy curl’s dripping on our floor!
I looked at Junebug and Isabel in disbelief. Charmaine wore 34. Junebug bit down hard on the hand towels we were given to wipe up sweat—though ours were merely decorative—to keep from screaming. “Put me in, put me in,” she chanted under her breath.
But Charmaine didn’t need our help. The chant stopped when she busted two three-pointers in a row, putting the game out of reach for Montbello.
Jenny Shank is a Boulder-based writer whose stories, essays, satire, and book reviews have appeared in many publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post and The Guardian. Her work has been honorably mentioned by The Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize anthology. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.